Thursday, July 11, 2013

Character Balance

Character Balance
by Annabel Aidan

Balancing what I like to read with what I like to write is always an interesting challenge.  In order to provoke a particular response from a reader, craft is important for the writer.  Writing whatever you feel like, or whatever “the Muse” tells you to write is fine for early drafts, but in revision, it’s the structure that will support the story and characters or will cause them to collapse.

Part of that is keeping characters in balance.  I love large ensembles of characters.  As someone who spent many years living in cities, that feels natural to me.  If a book I read is set in a major city, but there’s no sense of life and people and crowds teeming around the central and supporting characters, I wonder if the Apocalypse happened and I missed the memo. 

At the same time, unless it’s a series, where different supporting characters will move forward and backwards, depending upon the storyline of that particular book, it’s important not to have too many tangents with minor characters. 

As I often say in my class on both Supporting Characters and on Antagonists, every character, no matter how minor, is the protagonist of his or her own story.  Unfortunately, sometimes, one of them tries to run away with the book!

It’s important for the writer to know the details and stories of all the characters and fully develop them, but choosing what to reveal, how much to reveal, when to reveal it, and what revelations support/reflect/conflict with the protagonist and antagonist are all conscious choices that need to made, at the very least, by the revision process.

If the primary protagonist doesn’t drive the book, maybe you have the wrong character in that spot.

It happens sometimes; we start of with one character, but one of the other characters in the book turns out to be more vivid, more interesting, and is the actual protagonist.  The character you planned as the original protagonist is actually a supporting character.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  That’s the beauty of revision -- you get to move things around and see them in a new way.  We’ve all written books that miss the mark because the protagonist was bland and the supporting cast was more interesting!

If you are committed to your protagonist, but are worried that supporting characters are pulling focus, take time to get to know your protag a little better.  Write letters or diary entires in that character’s point of view.  Too many writers believe that everything they draft has to end up in the finished book or it’s “wasted”.  In truth, none of the writing you do to dig deeper is wasted.

Another thing you can do with an interesting supporting character is to promise him (or her) his own book or story in the future, and negotiate a lesser position in this story.

Your supporting characters are there to do just that -- support.  Drive the plot forward, reveal things about the primary protagonist (or antagonist), and SUPPORT those central characters in the overall story.  If they get too involved in their own stories, it dilutes the power of your central focus and themes.

Ultimately, it’s your decision, but it’s important that your protagonist is the most interesting character in the piece, so that your readers connect and stay with that individual!

--Annabel Aidan is a full-time writer publishing under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction.  Her paranormal romantic suspense novel for Champagne is ASSUMPTION OF RIGHT, combining witchcraft, theatre, and politics.  Website:


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Well done. I've had a few runaway characters whose own stories might have been thin, but who play that supporting role to the main event. When they grow out of proportion one must bring them to heel.

Big Mike said...

I know you're right. Even in the 5 star reviews of my first few novels, I've had reviewers comment about fewer characters. Now I fight to observe the "rule" in my RS and political thrillers where I can "sphere the world" in my main character's mind and experiences. But my SF novels border on space operas and off world epics. Yeah, still get top reviews but I can't help it, story just calls for a host of characters (g).

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)